Syria's Increasingly Grim Refugee Picture

The bleak future facing the country and its massive population of displaced.
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A newly arrived Syrian refugee waits to receive aid and rations, at Al-Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, on World Refugee Day, June 20, 2013. (Muhammad Hamed/Reuters)

One year ago, the United Nations said that over 78,000 people had fled Syria, as the conflict between President Bashar Al Assad and various opposition movements moved unmistakably towards full-on civil and even regional war. The number now tops 1.6 million, in addition to roughly 4.5 million internally displaced, whose movements are extremely difficult to track, and who, unlike refugees, are in conflict zones that are often outside the reach of international agencies and aid groups.

By the end of 2013, one out of every four people in Lebanon might be a Syrian refugee.

At a World Refugee Day event at the U.S. State Department on June 20th, Secretary of State John Kerry put a brave face on the American response to the world's worst refugee crisis in decades. "When the stakes are high, you need to up your game, and I'm proud to say that the United States is trying to do that," Kerry said, before citing some impressive statistics about America's humanitarian commitments: the U.S. is planning on dedicating $890 million to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 2013. The U.S. is the top provider of aid to the agency, contributing more than the next six countries combined.

This kind of aid has undoubtedly helped make refugee flows more manageable for neighboring governments -- particularly in a place like Jordan, a politically fragile and by no means prosperous country that's already home to 480,000 Syrians. But in the first half of 2013, the refugee crisis (and the war in general) accelerated at a rate that few had really anticipated , and there's a real possibility that, barring a resolution to the conflict, Syria's neighbors will simply become too overburdened --or too worried about internal stability -- to take in additional refugees. After Kerry's speech, two of the world's leading officials dealing with refugee affairs gave me the sense that decision-makers are anticipating a significantly worsening crisis. And they're acutely aware of a nightmeric possibility from a humanitarian standpoint: the potential that Syria's neighbors, overwhelmed with refugees and threatened with spillover violence, will simply seal their borders.

Alexander Aleinikoff, the U.N.'s Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees, says that his agency's planning figures assume that there will be 3 million refugees living outside of Syria by the end of 2013, along with 6 million internally displaced -- if this happens, one out of every four people in Lebanon will be a Syrian refugee a little over six months from now. There are no refugee camps in Lebanon, a cycically unstable country where over 550,000 Syrians compete with locals for jobs and resources; inside of Jordan, only between a quarter and 40 percent of Syrian refugees actually live in camps.

Aleinikoff says that it's "absolutely...viewed as a possibility" that neighboring countries could tighten border controls based on any number of factors. "If the numbers [of refugee arrivals] continue at this level or grow, if the war spreads across borders, if the fight in Syria now begins to be seen as a substantial security risk in the bordering countries....I would expect to see the borders if not closed, than much more closely managed," he says.

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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